OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Matthew Avery Sutton

Portrait of Matthew Avery Sutton

Matthew Avery Sutton is the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Washington State University. He is the author of Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War (2019), American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014), Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents (2012), and Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (2007). His articles have appeared in diverse publications, ranging from the Journal of American History to the New York Times, and he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Fulbright Commission, and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation. In 2016, he was appointed a Guggenheim Fellow.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

During World War II, dozens of missionaries, missionary executives, priests, and religious activists exchanged their religious calling for a different kind of calling—they became spies and covert agents. Sutton unearths this untold story, which traces the rise of the United States’ first intelligence agency and its relationship to religion. During World War II American leaders for the first time had to learn to navigate the complex ways in which the religious identities of peoples and nations shaped global conflict. They also had to determine how to use what they learned to their advantage. Leading the crusade into the mysterious netherworld of global religious faiths was a small army of missionaries, missionary executives, and adult missionary children, working for William “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA). Without necessarily anticipating the long-term consequences of their actions, they crafted new and important relationships for the United States with Mecca, the Vatican, and Zion. These relationships profoundly shaped the trajectory of American involvement with the rest of the world from the CIA’s Cold-War battle against “godless” communism to the “war on terror.”
This talk focuses on the rise of a colorful and charismatic group of radical Protestants and their impact on American politics across the early 20th century. Sutton explores how this group felt the United States was besieged by Satanic forces—like secularism, family breakdown and government encroachment—and took to the pulpit and airwaves to explain how prophecies of Biblical end times and an imminent apocalypse made sense of a ravaged modern world. By the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and conservative Republicans appropriated these evangelical ideas, challenging the pragmatic tradition of governance through compromise and consensus. In the 2016 election, no group supported President Trump more enthusiastically than white evangelicals. Sutton’s talk helps explain why.
One spring morning in 1926, popular Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson vanished from a local beach and was thought to have drowned. A month later she reappeared in Arizona claiming that members of the Los Angeles “underworld” kidnapped and held her for ransom in Mexico. Rumors quickly spread that she had actually been vacationing with a secret lover in the beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. A year-long media frenzy ensued. Matthew Avery Sutton will discuss the kidnapping controversy, focusing on what it reveals about debates over women’s changing gender roles, the position of fundamentalism in public life, and the uses and influence of new forms of mass media in 1920s America. This talk is based on Sutton’s award-winning book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007).